Day 4 & 5 – Thirsk to Loughton 263 miles
It takes two goes for the volunteer to wake me, as my body attempts to gain more sleep. They have cleverly put all the other 3.30am risers on the same row of air matresses and I find myself the last to get up. I’m shivering and put on all my clothes as I head to the canteen to eat and warm up. I know that if I can get onto the road and make it through to dawn, then things should improve but it takes all my willpower to head out into the darkness…
Stage 15: Thirsk to Pocklington 37miles 16.0mph
Outside, others are faffing with their bikes & lights but there’s nobody leaving so I head out of town on my own. Deep in my own thoughts, I’m woken by a train of 10 riders moving quickly so I speed up and tag onto the back. Without a word, they miss the turn taking us to the Howardian Hills and it dawns on me that we are taking a flatter main road route. Having already ‘seen’ the hills in the dark once, I have no concerns with missing them out, but going off piste means I have no idea of the route or where we are so I have to stay with this group.
The pace is good but not excessive and I feel comfortable in the middle of the pack. A couple of riders seem to be organising things. We tick along nicely as dawn lights the sky. My spirits are raised by the company and free speed. My mind races ahead… if I can stick with this group, reaching London will be straightforward.
Stage 16: Pocklington to Louth 62miles 12.2mph
I’m keen to keep with the group so I’m quick to put my shoes on at the first sign of people stirring. I head to my bike and whilst others are sorting themselves out, I decide to head up the road and get my legs working again as well seeing if I can find a comfortable position on the saddle. I notice that in my haste to leave I only filled one bottle and have less than half left in the other. Oh well, it shouldn’t be too hard work in the group so I should cope. I soft pedal, standing up and await the group.
I wait & wait… I even stop pedalling to turn around for a better look. Then it dawned on me… they’re not coming. The organisers have given us a safe route that can be used at any time of day, but the rules of LEL are that you can take any route between the controls. This is what we had done in the last stage – The A19 in rush hour would have been a hostile place to cycle, but before dawn it was perfect. Why had I assumed the group would have been back on the official route?
There was nothing for it, I have to plod on by myself, but I’m now angry with myself and hurting. I’m climbing long incline with a fairly innocuous gradient into a brisk headwind, my bum hurts, my back hurts. Somewhere nearby is happy group, who are sharing the work and know a flatter faster route than the one I’m on. This is a huge low for me. I knew there would be highs & lows on the ride but to have them so close together and so extreme was tough to take.
I give myself a talking to, citing what I had sacrificed in order to do the ride, the training I had done and how much I wanted to finish but I’m not sure I believed myself. I plough on muttering to myself as I tackle numerous slopes I had forgotten from the Northbound route. Climbing becomes tough. Gradients I would normally be comfortable with staying in my gear and pedalling harder to maintain my pace become really hard. I can’t keep up a reasonable pace and find myself reaching for granny gear very quickly and a slow slog. I experiment with attacking the climbs in a big gear and it works at first, although more than one attempt came to a crushing halt as have to give up and reach for my granny gear.
Approaching the halfway point at the Humber Bridge my water stocks are getting low and I’m rationing sips. I stop for the obligatory photo on the bridge but my heart’s not in it. Crossing the bridge is an important milestone, not least because the route I’m following on my garmin has a gremlin and so I’ll be back to the paper route sheet, but it should be easier as we are retracing the Northbound route.
Several riders pass me and encourage me to tag onto their wheel. I try to up my pace but it doesn’t last long and soon they disappear into the distance. Outside Humber Airport the inevitable happens and I miss turn and find myself having to do an extra mile on a busy road. It’s not catastrophic but it does nothing to improve my mood as I tackle the next hill. I can’t help thinking of the group I lost, and how I could have been on a flatter route, getting a rest from the wind, chatting away…
The hills keep coming, and much steeper than I remember from the way North. I’m out of water and now crawling up every incline at what seems like a snail’s pace but my stubbornness doesn’t allow me to dismount whilst I can keep the pedals turning. I see a sign of Louth being another 10 miles away – will this stage never end?
Feeling hot, thirsty and broken, I stop at a village store. I stagger in and pick up two 500ml bottle of full fat coke. The shopkeeper is deep in conversation with another customer. I can’t bear the wait and crack into the first bottle before I get to the counter. The relief is instant as I guzzle the cold sugary liquid. They turn to me and ask if I’m doing ‘that cycling thing’ and recount the story of an acquaintance who had tried it but had to stop on day 1 due to injury. It reminds me how far I’ve come and that I’m only a good day’s ride away from finishing this thing. The stop is just what was needed and with the 2nd bottle transferred to my bidon, I remount and start turning the pedals again.
As I reach the outskirts of Louth my path coincides with a small group coming into town from a different direction. I recognise one of their saddle bags from the pre-dawn group and we pull into the control together. Maybe it wasn’t all a bed of roses for them after all…
Stage 16: Louth to Spalding 52miles 13.4 mph
I eat with the group. Despite everyone looking knackered, they are in jovial spirits – they included a couple of local lads who had popped home on route. This is just what I need, but there is no thought of not finishing, just different sleep strategies for getting back to Loughton. They ask me to join them. Ahead of us lies nearly 100 miles of flat, straight roads through the fens. Into a headwind. Company would be definitely be good.
What a difference it makes. We ride and chat, sharing jokes – mainly gallows humour but it’s good to laugh. I have something to work for now and spend long periods on the front, perfectly happy battling the headwind, feeling stronger as the stage continues. Sitting in the wheels allows me to relax for the first in days. One of our riders has a sore neck and is struggling to keep awake following a poor night’s rest, so the ethos is pacing ourselves and having fun, where we can. Such a change from the most popular approach of grinding yourself into the ground, getting slower and slower as you go.
Our group expands and people take a welcome shelter from the wind & before too long we arrive at the Spalding for yet another meal…
Stage 17 Spalding to St Ives 38miles 13.7mph
The consensus was for a quick sleep & I’m out for the count as soon as I hit the air mattress. Hitting the road again, we pick up some more riders for our group, but it becomes harder to manage as the newcomers seen keener to push the pace.
Before long the original foursome stops with an audax legend for a makeshift fix for the injured neck involving an innertube strapped under his armpits. We try not to laugh too much…
It seems to do the trick and the gang is soon back on the road and battling the headwind as before and soon picking up the waifs and strays again. There is an art to leading a chain into a headwind, which I had plenty of time to learn. A block headwind, you just pick your tempo and pound it out, checking from time to time that you haven’t dropped anyone. A slight angle to the headwind, and you’re trying to set up an echelon like you’ve seen on the telly. A crosswind and you have to back it off as the weaker riders don’t get the protection and will be suffering. Seems simple enough, but the curves and turns of the road require changes in power. It keeps me amused as we roll on through the fens in the fading light.
The group expands to 10 or 12 as we are a formidable force sharing the workload and not burning ourselves out, all the time looking after Damian, who continues in good spirits and good legs despite his suffering. One rider is unimpressed with our steady pace and gets down on his aerobars and tries to drop the group. We start to take bets on how long he will last, it’s a good 10 minutes before we real him back in and he shuffles back into the wheels.
Approaching St Ives dusk has fallen and we have a few road junctions to negotiate. The cohesion of the group is broken by the stop-starting and it’s harder to look after Damien with people around us unaware of his condition and traffic to consider. It was with some relief that we turned into St Ives control.
Stage 18 St Ives to Great Easton 44miles 12.2mph
More food and a wise decision for a decent amount of kip for Damian & his brother, before continuing. The other of the foursome (still haven’t asked his name…) & I decide on another catnap before heading on.
The guided bus lane is eerie in the darkness, but the secluded isolation is pleasant enough as we continue to fight the headwind. Arriving at Cambridge just after midnight is a surreal experience. The myriad of cycling infrastructure would be a welcome relief to the daylight traveller, but to us is a baffling array of options and signs that we struggle to comprehend. We eventually get the hang of the segregated lane down Huntington Road and are soon over the Cam and amongst the colleges with late night revellers enjoying themselves. We pass on the opportunity to join them…
Back out in the wilds, my energy is low and it feels like a long uphill slog in what should be relatively flat country. What should have been a short stage is becoming a long drag in the dark. I am very glad of the company as chatting helps pass the time and allows me to ignore the purgatory of pedalling my sore & soaked body through the rain
We finally turn off the neverending B road onto some small lanes that give us some short sharp climbs and puddles to dodge. On one hill we see a bright light coming towards us that turn out to be a rider backtracking to check his route finding. I don’t think my mind could cope with getting lost at this stage and he seems pleased to join us for the last few miles. At the next hill I aim for the comfort of my granny gear only in my befuddled state go into my biggest gear and grind to halt. My attempt at restarting results in me falling off and seeing my companions lights disappear out of sight. I walk up slowly, reassured that I know they will stop when then realise my absence.
We regroup and are soon in Great Easton control. Worried about hyperthermia, I strip off my wet kit and wrap myself into a blanket. I optimistically hang up my clothes to dry, regretting not carrying any dry kit with me. Over food, we decide to sleep for another hour and continue at dawn.
Stage 20 Great Easton to Loughton (a.k.a. London) 30miles 13.5mph
The volunteer takes 2 attempts to wake me. I could easily have stayed put. My body enjoyed not being on a bike and is in no hurry get up. It is a real struggle to return to the canteen for yet more food. To my amazement the 2 brothers from our foursome are there tucking into breakfast, having ridden through the night on the alternative route avoiding Cambridge to keep their dream of finishing going. I’m still wrapped in a blanket and probably look worse than them. Putting on my wet kit is pretty demoralising, but knowing that we haven’t far to go and the group was back together was enough to get me out the door and onto the bike.
Everything is hurting now, I ride the first 5 miles without sitting down. I have no desire or energy to be on the front. I’m doing what I can to follow the wheel ahead. The separate routes taken on the last section provide a new supply of stories and jokes as we wind our way towards London, safe in the knowledge that we had time in hand. A puncture strikes and we spread out on the verge for a rest while it is dealt with.
Back on the road, there are a few more climbs to tackle that I had heard bad things about but we grind our way up them without too much complaint. The traffic is getting heavier but nothing is going to stop us now. We roll into the Loughton after what seems a lifetime since we left, but is actually only 97 hours, 62 of which were spent pedalling.
I hadn’t really planned my arrival at the finish. I got my card stamped and taken away from and was ushered into get my photo taken – I’m not sure it is my best look…